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Judges blog: Great British Beer Hunt unmasks brewing talent

Published:  11 October, 2011

Never has there been a more exciting time for brewers hailing from our very own green and pleasant land.

Never has there been a more exciting time for brewers hailing from our very own green and pleasant land.

Britain is currently a hotbed of innovation, with brewers the length and breadth of the country working tirelessly to produce new and original beers for the nation to enjoy.

And it's not just the big guns with the money to bring creative ideas to fruition - it's also the smaller brewers that are breaking boundaries when it comes to styles, flavours, packaging and good old-fashioned punter appeal.

But for these smaller set-ups, achieving national recognition, as opposed to merely being known in their local region, is often a pipedream. National listings can be difficult to achieve at best, and often downright impossible.

Which is why I'm taking my hat off to supermarket mammoth Sainsbury's for launching its Great British Beer Hunt, which culminated last week in a dramatic final.

The hunt takes to the road

The idea behind the competition was to find two previously unknown beers that would be stocked in Sainsbury's stores throughout the UK for a minimum of six months. All UK brewers, regardless of size or scale of operation, were invited to enter.

In May, the hunt went on the road to Edinburgh, Watford, Bristol and Uttoxeter, with hundreds of willing Sainsbury's shoppers and beer specialists helping to whittle down 106 beers to a total of 16 (four per region). Judging was initially done on appearance and taste, and beers were sampled alongside regional speciality foods.

Last month those beers went on sale in stores for a three-week period, and from there eight of the top-selling beers went head-to-head in the grand final.

Tough judging decisions

Being on the panel of judges in the final gave me a chance to see for myself the huge breadth of creative and hardworking brewers that Britain boasts. As Sainsbury's was keen to point out, it's not easy creating and branding a new beer for a competition - it takes dedication, attention to detail and dogged perseverance. The team must be willing to experiment, work long hours and invest in original design ideas and packaging.

When it came to judging, all these factors were taken into account, with marks awarded for bottle presentation, appearance of the beer, aroma, taste, flavour, after-taste and overall appeal. Tension was high as the finalist brewers waited for the judges' scores to be recounted after two beers appeared to be drawing neck-and-neck.

Eventually a 6% abv black bitter called Bad King John from Henley-based Ridgeway Brewery was declared the champion, winning a six month listing in 300 Sainsbury's stores. Runner up was Caesar Augustus golden ale of William Bros brewery in Scotland, which secured a listing in 150 stores.

Such prizes show Sainsbury's ongoing commitment to supporting the great British brewing industry - an industry that is working hard to raise its game and ensure the 700,000 people it employs stay in work. In a drinks trade often criticised for lacking creative spirit or original ideas, such efforts must not go unapplauded.

Laura Heywood is features editor of Harpers Wine & Spirit.